The Problem Of Memory

In Longreads

The Afghan army commander motioned the American lieutenant into his office. Lt. Col. Attaullah was 48, with gelled hair, blue-framed eyeglasses and the rigid bearing of a communist general. A Pashtun from Konduz and a veteran of Najibullah’s army in the 1980s, he wore his camouflage uniform buttoned tightly at the neck, displaying the gold braid on his collar to advantage. He shook the American officer’s hand and sent one of his soldiers to bring tea.

Lt. Aaron Anderson sank into a soft, brown armchair against the wall. A 36-year-old former Army Ranger from Missouri, Anderson had studied history and anthropology in college and now commanded a company of Georgia National Guard troops in Zormat, a heavily traveled valley in eastern Afghanistan where tribal allegiances have been fractured by years of war. Anderson had served in Iraq, and he knew that the fight in Afghanistan was largely political. “I don’t think the Taliban is a bad organization,” he’d told me the night before. “I just think they have bad methods.” But in the months he’d worked with Attaullah, Anderson had come to view the Afghan as a dubious partner. Attaullah had taken the coalition’s lessons about counterinsurgency almost too much to heart, Anderson thought, seeming to enjoy the fight for public opinion – and his own resulting status as a populist hero – more than the tough and sometimes unpopular work of improving security. A month earlier, when locals complained loudly about nighttime raids by Afghan and U.S. forces, Attaullah had become among the most forceful advocates for ending them.

Night raids, it turned out, were the very subject that Attaullah wanted to discuss with Anderson on this sunny February morning. In a few minutes, the Afghan commander’s office would fill with tribal elders for the second day of a landmark shura, the first time in years that leaders from each of the seven tribes in the district had gathered to talk about the area’s future. On the agenda was a detailed agreement that Attaullah and Anderson hoped the elders would ratify. It urged local leaders to start talks with low-level Taliban, required elders to turn in suspicious people and warned that anyone caught burying a bomb in the road would be killed on the spot. And it mandated that Afghan and coalition forces stop conducting aerial attacks in populated areas and nighttime raids, except in the direst emergencies.

Many Afghans, especially conservative Pashtuns, view night raids as a fearsome intrusion and an affront to their honor. The operations occur suddenly, without a court order or other support from the frail Afghan justice system, and generally entail thorough house searches. Coalition forces, meanwhile, like nothing better than to use their profound technological advantages after dark to surprise suspected insurgents in their beds. U.S. commanders argue that when night raids work, they can be more effective and less dangerous than daytime missions because fewer civilians are generally around to get caught in the crossfire. But when the wrong people get roughed up, rolled up, or killed, as sometimes happens, the raids become harder to defend. General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, issued new rules in January making it harder to conduct night operations and mandating Afghan participation when they do occur. But Attaullah wasn’t especially pleased with the behavior of the Afghan commandos who often executed the raids alongside Americans, and whom he suspected of stealing. Now he leaned toward Anderson and spoke with special emphasis.

“Missions should be according to law and not harm the people,” Attaullah said bluntly. “During the missions they did in the past year, we had a very bad experience, and we have very bad memories.”

The anthropologically-minded Anderson — who had told me that he’d relish the opportunity to talk to Mullah Omar and “pick his brain,” and who had such an appreciation for the sanctity of Iraqi culture that he felt a pang of regret when the statue of Saddam Hussein came down because, even though he didn’t like Saddam either, the statue was an important part of Iraq’s history — this same Lt. Anderson was about to encounter a force of great power in Afghanistan over which he had no control, and that was History itself. Anderson had been in Zormat only a few months. Seated in the room with him on this February day were two Human Terrain social scientists, part of an experimental Army project that embeds anthropologists, sociologists and other civilians with military units to help soldiers understand local culture. But what Anderson and the Human Terrain team members failed to fully grasp was that the war had been going on for a very long time in Zormat, and for most of it, there had been no such thing as a Human Terrain team and no sensitive, culturally aware lieutenants who appreciated what Mullah Omar might have to say.

U.S. and coalition forces had been operating in eastern Afghanistan for nearly eight years before the arrival of McChrystal and the dawning of the Age of Counterinsurgency, and during most of that period, the American mission had been simply to kill and capture members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It was here, in the Shah-i-Kot valley, that U.S. forces fought hundreds of militants during Operation Anaconda in 2002. It was here, too, that incurious American soldiers failed early on to realize what shrewd political analysts and fantastic storytellers the Afghans were, a failure that would ultimately cost them more in local support than all their tactical victories earned.

Militia commanders ingratiated themselves with the Americans and informed on each other — as one elder at the Zormat shura later explained, “we had war here for 30 years and people have a lot of personal enemies, and people used the coalition and Special Forces to get at their enemies for them.” Missiles were fired on vanloads of suspected insurgents, who sometimes really were insurgents and sometimes turned out to be a family on its way to a wedding or a picnic. Ordinary Afghans, caught between increasingly violent hometown fighters and the power of U.S. air strikes, hoped they wouldn’t be next. They pulled over to avoid the coalition military convoys that careened at high speed down the country’s few paved roads. Although U.S. strategy had recently and radically changed — including a near-moratorium on air strikes and the new restrictions on night raids — Afghans in Zormat were less inclined to see the changes than to bemoan a prolonged pattern of unintelligent operations that had harmed and alienated many. As a result, Anderson was tripping over American mistakes every time he tried to walk past them, hearing about them every time he tried to talk about the new U.S. approach to the war. This made his job in Zormat infinitely more complex than that of his Marine counterpart in Helmand, who might actually be the first American officer that Afghan villagers had ever seen.

Now Anderson and the Human Terrain team members stood as men well acquainted with history entered Attaullah’s office, surrounding the commander’s clean, modern desk and seating themselves beneath the eyes of the obligatory, but by now irrelevant, portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the wall. The tribal elders — brown-skinned, bearded and wrinkled — wore jackets and shawls, thick socks and slip-on loafers encrusted in mud. One was blind in one eye; another had a cracked lens in one of his eyeglasses. A short, wizened man ran a pink plastic comb through his beard while the others argued. The more cosmopolitan among them carried cell phones, which, as a sign of status, they did not switch off during the proceedings. The phones buzzed and trilled, interrupting speeches and the haunting Koranic prayers sung at the beginning and end of the meeting by the Afghan Army’s uniformed mullah. Almost immediately, the discussion turned to night raids.

“At the time when they do their missions, they don’t care about small kids or anything. They just want to get their guy,” a bearded Afghan in a gray and white turban railed from the back of the room.

Anderson stood up. “Thank you for letting me attend your shura,” he said. “We’re changing the way we’re doing things. I want to talk to the Taliban because I’m sad about the killing of children by both the Taliban and coalition forces. No longer does my company in Zormat do operations by itself. We do all missions with the ANA.”

“Talk about the Special Forces,” Attaullah pressed him.

“Special Forces are going to coordinate any missions in this area through myself and Col. Attaullah from this point on,” Anderson said.

“Talk about bombings on civilian areas,” the Afghan commander ordered.

“We will not bomb with artillery or drop bombs if civilians are in the area.” Anderson said dutifully.

A man with black hair and a high voice, sitting near the wall, spoke up.

“My house was surrounded by coalition forces and Afghan commandos for 38 hours,” the man said. “They disorganized everything in the house and I couldn’t find anything for a month.” He paused, turning to look at Attaullah and the district subgovernor, Ghulab Shah. “You said we’re not supposed to think about the past, we’re supposed to look to the future. But if you consider the past, we have a lot of evidence that they did bad stuff in searching our houses.”

Lt. Anderson leaned forward and asked again for permission to speak. “I respect your feelings about the past, but that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We’re trying to make a change. We’re all coming together here to try to do things differently, because bad things were done in the past.”

The elders waited for this to be translated, then nodded in appreciation and agreement. And yet, because the changes of which Anderson spoke had been instituted only recently, the elders regarded them with the same skepticism they naturally attached to all the promises they had ever heard from powerful people. The man with one cracked lens in his glasses stood and made his way slowly to Attaullah’s desk with a pile of creased papers. He was very tall and thin, with a navy blue blazer over his tunic. He had seen the results of a failed American mission firsthand, he said, and suffered from it.

“They told me to sit down, that I can talk later. But none of them suffered such experiences as I did,” the man said. “Three of my family were killed, two injured. I’ve lost a lot of my property.” The raid on his house had occurred recently, in the fall. “I’m not a Taliban member now,” he said, “but maybe because I was hurt, I will become a Taliban member.”

Attaullah picked up the sheaf of papers the tall man had placed on his desk and waved them in the air. He had already dealt with the man’s complaint, he said. “I passed it to the higher ranks. I told it to an American general.”

The tall man continued to plead. At first, the other elders looked concerned. But as the minutes passed and the man stubbornly refused to sit down, they fidgeted and sighed in frustration. They had heard his story before, and there were more topics to cover before the lunch break. Finally, an intense looking man in the front row, who had spent most of the meeting listening carefully while fingering a strand of wooden prayer beads, lost his temper. He stood and turned toward the tall man.

“We had a meeting with President Karzai and told him about this, so why are you bringing it up now?” the man with the beads asked.

The tall man began to wilt. He turned back toward his seat. I asked the translator next to me who the man with the beads was.

“He’s very trusted by everyone,” said the translator, who went by the nickname Josh to protect his identity, and that was all he had time to say before he had to go back to telling his boss, Lt. Anderson, what the Afghans were saying.

The elders broke for lunch and prayers. The shura resumed and, a couple of hours later, Attaullah and Anderson got the agreement they wanted. The tribal leaders would cooperate with the Afghan government and the Americans in Zormat, while also reaching out to low-level Taliban. They signed or pressed ink-stained thumbs onto several sheets of paper to ratify the agreement.

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In the afternoon sun in front of Attaullah’s office, I asked Josh to help me talk to the man with the beads. His name was Hajji Naim. He had brown skin and a neatly trimmed beard, and he wore a wool shawl embroidered with flowers. I’d been told that he was one of the most powerful elders in the district. I asked him about another elder, Hajji Rashid, who had been brutally murdered two months earlier. Hajji Rashid had been a tribal leader since King Zahir Shah’s time, Naim said. He had been popular locally and loyal to the Karzai government; Attaullah had called his death “a huge waste.” Hajji Naim agreed: “He was my friend, a shura member and a really good Muslim.”

Hajji Rashid’s killing illustrates the dangers that Afghans still face when they agree to work with the Americans and the U.S.-backed Afghan government. Rashid had been kidnapped while working in his field in the middle of the day, Naim said. His children had gone after the people who took him to protest the kidnapping, and they too had been captured, bound and forced to watch as their father was tortured and killed. The attackers put out Rashid’s eyes and shot him as many as 30 times, Hajji Naim said. “We can say this was an action by the Taliban,” Naim told me, but he acknowledged that given the brutality of the killing, there might be some personal enmity involved.

Hajji Naim’s personal history was also complex. He had been a commander in the army of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led a mujaheddin group during the war against the Soviets. Rabbani went on to serve as president of Afghanistan during a bloody time when rival Afghan commanders fought each other, killing thousands of civilians, as the Taliban gained strength in the south. For 10 months under the interim government of Hamid Karzai, sometime between 2002 and 2004, Naim had been Zormat’s police chief, he said. The land where that day’s shura had been held – which was now an Afghan army compound – had been in those days the site of a madrassa led by a conservative pro-Taliban mullah. As police chief, Naim had told the mullah that his time in Zormat was up and he had to go. Shortly thereafter Naim himself had been arrested by the Americans and taken to Guantánamo, where he said he was imprisoned for 16 to 18 months. He blamed an unknown enemy – possibly allied with the Taliban mullah – for falsely informing on him.

“Now you guys say you’re sorry,” Naim told me, “but I don’t believe it.”

Another elder, Hajji Eid Mohammad Youdo, spoke up. He had been chief of the Zormat shura after the Americans invaded in 2001, he said. “The one who is responsible for a lot of the bad stuff over here is the coalition forces,” Youdo said. “We tried to share our opinions and thoughts with them, but they were just ignoring that. That’s why things are so bad here.”

Around the time when Naim was arrested and taken to Guantánamo, Youdo said he learned that the Americans wanted to capture him too. He spent a couple of years on the run, hiding in the mountains, and finally traveled to Kabul, tracked down former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and got him to write out a guarantee saying that Youdo was innocent. “We were mujaheddin leaders,” Youdo said. “But when the coalition forces came, they tried to kill us because they saw we were popular and had 1,000 or 2,000 people with us, and they thought we were Taliban. There are times when I think the U.S. and the Taliban are working together.”

I asked Hajji Naim if he considered joining the Taliban after his return from Guantánamo. He considered the question carefully.

“Sometimes, when I remember those times, I think, ‘Hey, I should go and join the Taliban.’ And I’ve got about 2,000 people who respect me as a leader, and if I tell them, they’ll come and join the Taliban with me,” he said. “But then I think, ‘No, you’re going to destroy your country.’ So that stops me.”

His only leadership role now was as a tribal elder. But since his return from Cuba, the Afghan government had asked him to work for them again in Zormat. Recently, he said, a delegation including the governor of Paktiya province and a representative from the U.N. had even visited his house to urge him to take a government job. Naim refused. “I said ‘No, this leadership got me sent to Guantánamo. I won’t do it again.'”

First published at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.